In the 19th century, the building of the railroads allowed such great distances to be traversed at what was previously unimaginable speeds, resulting in new comprehensions of time and space and the opening of a new frontier. In the 20th century, the construction of NC Highway 12 had a similar effect on the Outer Banks. In 1900, when Wilbur Wright set out for Kitty Hawk, NC from Dayton, Ohio, the train arrived in Elizabeth City, NC two days later. The last 35 miles of his journey to the small fishing village of Kitty Hawk, isolated and without infrastructure, took four days and almost ended in shipwreck. For a detailed account see Wilbur Wright Travels to the Outer Banks: Dayton, Ohio to Elizabeth City, NC, September 6-September 13, 1900.
Long before there were paved roads on the Outer banks, the teenaged brothers Harold, Stocky and Anderson Midgett operated the Manteo-Hatteras Bus Line in the late 1930s. Driving on the wet sand, dodging shipwrecks, and even swinging out into the shallow sound, the 50 mile trip to the ferry at Oregon Inlet could take anywhere from four and a half to ten hours to complete, and occasionally passengers had to spend the night on the beach due to mechanical problems. For an excellent account of driving on the Outer Banks before the road, see Anderson Midgett talks to Amy Glass about running the Hatteras to Manteo Bus Line with his brothers on Carolina Coastal Voices, embedded below.
The road not only linked the isolated communities of NC's barrier landscape together like never before, but also opened them up to the growing numbers of temporary visitors that would soon transform the place and its economy. The road tamed the atlantic frontier, bringing human convenience wherever it went, but it also locked visitors, locals, politicians, engineers, and numerous governmental agencies into a seemingly unwinnable gamble with the forces of natures: how to maintain a brittle, vital ribbon of asphalt atop a strip of sand in one of the most kinetic environments imaginable.
At 148 miles long, Highway 12 is the critical element that allows people to easily experience the Outer Banks. It is a two-lane road that runs North-South along the barrier islands (in some places barely wider than the road) beginning in the south at a junction with US 70 in the community of Sea Level on the mainland and ends just north of Corolla, where the road becomes a sandy path along the beach for the last few miles, terminating near the Virginia border. The route includes two ferry trips to cross both the Ocracoke and Hatteras inlets, one major bridge across the Oregon Inlet, a presently temporary bridge over New Inlet, and the ever-present sight of both beautiful vistas and construction crews.
The road was the key infrastructure that opened the Outer Banks to profitable development, increasing tax revenues and real estate value. Its existence allowed countless Americans to easily venture to the coast, experiencing a place prized for natural beauty and steeped with the lore of a national identity built on tales of the Lost Colony and the Wright Brothers' first flight. In the first half of the 20th century, a road was not at odds with the prevailing ideas about the geology of the islands. They were considered to be constant, permanent; though damaged by poor human stewardship, capable of rehabilitation to a former pristine, forested, and stable condition. Current science gives us a more advanced view of the complex and kinetic systems of the barrier islands. The Outer Banks are naturally migratory.
The dunes are the primary stabilizing element of the Outer Banks. They were originally built and maintained by the Park Service in an attempt to protect the islands and allow them to revert back into an imagined, idyllic state, though as updated science explained otherwise, the Park Service stopped all dune maintenance, potentially leaving the road susceptible to erosion, washouts, and decay. Instead, the job was passed to the NC Department of Transportation.
To maintain the road, fixed in place, and the developed shoreline that it has created, we must stop the migration of the islands. But to stop their migration is also to rob them of the natural processes that replenish their supply of sand and consequentially they are shrinking, fading into the Atlantic. It is an expensive, emotional, and exceedingly complex issue, born of American desires for both nature and convenience, and delivered by the road.